The Magazine

Sense and Sensibility

No good deed of Hume's went unpunished by Rousseau.

Mar 30, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 27 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Hume had asked for the name of his accuser, but the only accuser, Rousseau told him, was Hume himself. In addition to the earlier charges--the private letters opened or not sent, the mere "appearance" of arranging the pension, the "plot" of those anonymous public letters--Rousseau now added other items to his indictment. A portrait of Rousseau Hume had commissioned was "hideous" (especially compared with that of Hume himself); the copy of Julie he had put in Rousseau's London lodgings was, of all his books, "the most tiresome to him"; a theater engagement Hume had arranged (which Rousseau clearly enjoyed, basking in the presence of the King) forced him to miss an appointment with a librarian in the British Museum; and it was because of the machinations of Hume that the English press, which had been initially favorable to him, turned against him. Rousseau also recalled their final meeting in London, when Hume had fixed upon him a "steadfast piercing look, mixed with a sneer," which induced in him "the most inexpressible terror," and was relieved only by "an effusion of tears." "No, no," he remembered saying as he embraced Hume, "David Hume cannot be treacherous. If he be not the best of men, he must be the basest of mankind." To which Hume had responded only with the politest and briefest assertions of innocence.

Even more disturbing was the memory of the four words Hume had uttered when they shared a room one night in an inn on their journey from Paris to London. Rousseau could not tell whether Hume was awake or asleep when he said, "Je tiens J.J. Rousseau"--"I have you, Rousseau." "Not a night indeed passes over my head," Rousseau now wrote, "but I think I hear, 'Rousseau, I have you,' ring in my ears as if he had just pronounced them." Rousseau concluded by challenging Hume to prove his innocence, or not write him again.

In his reply, Hume also recalled that last meeting, especially Rousseau's begging his forgiveness for having so misunderstood his acts of friendship. "The story as I tell it," Hume protested, "is consistent and rational. There is not common sense in your account." Everything he had done was meant to provide for Rousseau's "repose, honor, and fortune," and he regretted that it had all been turned against him. In the margins of Rousseau's letter, he was more specific, noting, after each charge of the indictment, the word "lie," making for a total of a dozen lies. About those four damning words he presumably uttered, awake or asleep, he commented that Rousseau himself did not know whether he was awake or asleep when he heard them. (Hume might also have pointed out that an Englishman, whether awake or asleep, would not be likely to be speaking in French.)

"Adieu, and forever," Hume had concluded his letter. But it was not quite "adieu," because he continued to pursue the matter of the royal pension. In April the following year Rousseau finally, grudgingly, accepted it. By then, however, the matter was moot, because Rousseau and his mistress Thérèse fled from Wootton Hall after her quarrels with the servants had made life there intolerable--and fled from England as well.

So far, these events might have remained private, awaiting perhaps the discovery of their letters in an obscure archive by an enterprising historian. (Hume had sent them to the British Museum, which did not, however, accept them.) In fact, the letters were circulated by the protagonists themselves among their friends--and thus their friends' friends. Rousseau, vowing to keep silent about the "universal plot," the powerful and skillful "league" that had formed against him, sent his last, long letter to his publisher, asking him to show it to others. Hume, suspecting that the letter would be published as a two-shillings pamphlet, and that the affair would feature prominently in the memoir Rousseau was known to be writing, sent the whole correspondence to d'Alembert to publish if he saw fit. (It does not, in fact, appear in Rousseau's Confessions, which was published posthumously and stops short of this period.)

Some of Hume's friends, including Adam Smith who dismissed Rousseau as a "rascal," counseled against publication, but d'Alembert, learning that Rousseau's letter was in possession of his publisher, persuaded Hume that the entire correspondence should be published. The book appeared in France in October 1766, and in England the following month, under the title A Concise and Genuine Account of the Dispute Between Mr. Hume and Mr. Rousseau. The "dispute" thus became something of a cause célèbre in both countries, not only among the literati, who knew the disputants personally, but among readers and reviewers of that "Concise and Genuine Account."

The devil is in the details. No abridgment of this affair, no paraphrase of quotations from the letters, can do justice to it. Writing to Davenport the day he received Rousseau's letter, Hume described it as "a perfect frenzy" and worried that his poor friend might find himself "shut up altogether in Bedlam." Voltaire, reading the published account, wrote an open letter to Hume describing Rousseau as "completely mad"--mad in his conduct towards his benefactor, but also mad in his writings, which were those of "an empty ranter spun out in an often unintelligible prose." A modern reader might prefer the word "paranoid." The authors of The Philosophers' Quarrel are more judicious; they only report on the responses of others. And those responses are almost as curious as the affair itself.

Apart from the philosophes who had good reason to think of Rousseau as their enemy, popular opinion in France was overwhelmingly in his favor. This was the author of the bestselling novel of the era, Julie ou la nouvelle Héloise--a man of "sensibility," of "candor, integrity, and sensitivity," in contrast to the insensitive and obtuse Englishman. More surprising was the fact that so many Englishmen shared this view, like the reader who rebuked Hume for not appreciating the "extreme sensibility" with which Rousseau responded to his extreme difficulties, or the fellow Scotsman, writing as "A Friend to Rousseau," who recommended his country (and Hume's) as a fitting home for that "illustrious exile."

Rousseau himself made this identification with Julie explicit when he explained that in his letter to Hume he would do what he had done in Julie. He would write only about his feelings because he knew only what he felt. His feelings, the movements of his "soul," were his warrant of truth. It is also interesting that he should speak of the Julie "letters" (the novel was written in the form of letters) as if they were on a par with the Hume letter, the fictional letters having a sincerity and authenticity lacking in the unfeeling prose of Hume.

The public response to this affair suggests that it was more than a falling-out between two people who happened to be eminent philosophers, although this would have been
intriguing enough. What made it more provocative for their contemporaries was the impression that something more was at stake, that the quarrel reflected two very different philosophies, or at least philosophical temperaments that lent themselves to distinctive philosophies. No one argued about the details of the case: Hume's deception about the coach fare to Wootton Hall, or his complicity in the publication of Walpole's or Voltaire's letters, or his ill-will in holding back some of the letters from admirers, or his "horrifying stare" at their last meeting. To the partisans on both sides, the issue was simple: It was a conflict between heart and mind, feeling and reason, sensibility and common sense--between, as one Frenchman put, the creator of Julie and the historian of England.

A philosopher today, who takes both men seriously as philosophers, may dismiss this quarrel as of no importance, a blip in the personal lives of all-too-human men. But to a historian of ideas it may have a larger importance. In any case, it is not the historian who is intruding on their personal lives, making public what should have been private. It is they themselves who brought this affair into the public arena, making it part not only of the historical record but also of the philosophical record. In their charges and countercharges, they gave meaning and legitimacy--moral and philosophical legitimacy--to what might otherwise have been dismissed as eccentricity or perversity. Paranoia may be just paranoia. But sometimes, just sometimes, it may be something else as well. "The personal is political," we have been told of late. By the same token, the personal may be philosophical.

Early in the book, the authors confront the question of the Enlightenment. How can such disparate figures as Rousseau and Hume be comprehended within that singular term? After some agonizing, they dispose of the problem by retaining the term. It is, they decide, "easier to live with the Enlightenment than without it"; as the legacy we live with and as the conceptual framework for scholars, "the Enlightenment is indispensable." Well, perhaps not. A historian, and a philosopher as well, may conclude The Philosophers' Quarrel by appreciating, more than ever, the multiplicity of "Enlightenments" and even "anti-Enlightenments" lurking within that term, the romanticism inspired by a Rousseauean cult of sensibility coexisting uneasily with the rationalism of the philosophes and the skeptical empiricism of Hume.

A historian may also recognize the ambiguities of Rousseau himself--the author of Julie who was also the author of The Social Contract. It was the latter Rousseau who emerged into prominence in the French Revolution--the philosopher to whom statues were erected throughout Paris, whose bust was installed in the Assembly Hall, whose body was transferred to the Pantheon together with a copy of The Social Contract resting on a velvet cushion, and to whom Robespierre paid homage when he ushered in the Reign of Terror (the official name of the new regime) which would realize the "general will" and bring about a complete "regeneration" of man.

This was the Rousseau that Edmund Burke, anticipating the Terror, saw as the evil genius of the Revolution. Burke also saw the relationship between Rousseau the man and Rousseau the philosopher. Reading Rousseau's admission in the Confessions that he had fathered five children, each of whom he had promptly turned over to the foundling hospital, Burke was moved to decry the philosopher who was so wanting in natural parental affection while professing the most exalted ideals. "Benevolence to the whole species, and want of feeling for every individual," "a lover of his kind, but a hatred of his kindred"--this, Burke said, was the "philosophic instructor," the "moral hero" of the Revolution, who counseled the "regeneration" of man while sacrificing the real man, the human being.

It is this Rousseau, the historic Rousseau, who created not only a culture of sensibility but also a philosophy of sensibility, and, more momentously, a politics of sensibility. And it is this Rousseau who remains a challenge to philosophers and historians today, as he was to critics and admirers in his own day.

Gertrude Himmelfarb is the author of the forthcoming The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot (Encounter).